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Review: Tröll is a play that reminds us we are all kids at heart

If you’ve ever had the mistaken belief that children’s stories are just for kids then a very charming production called Tröll will disabuse you of that notion. It is a mostly one-man show by writer and actor Ralph McCubbin Howell, and tells the story of a young boy called Otto. He pretends he’s slightly older than he is, and lives with his parents, sister, and Icelandic grandma in an old wooden house. The year is 1998, and Otto has discovered the exciting world of the internet. But, he is shadowed by a nasty troll who visits him at night. No one believes him but his gran. 

There follows a sweet story of a young boy on the cusp of his teenage years trying to make sense of the world and the changing dynamics of his life. The internet becomes his safety zone, or so he thinks, as he rebelliously gets up each morning at 4 am to explore. It’s a time you might remember well. The birth of the world wide web with all its promise but still bogged down with the misery of that age – dial-up modems. 

That dial-up sound, so familiar, yet almost forgotten by most of us who lived through it became a joke in itself. There were many amusing references to the time and the innocence and excitement at the possibility a lot of us probably felt in those early days of the net. Chat rooms (probably mIRC) to delve into, and a sense that people would be kind and supportive and use the internet for good – my goodness, how naive we were! 

The innocence of that time was summed up nicely by one of Otto’s utterances: “No one is a dick on the internet!”  How times change!

Otto’s story covers all the typical things someone at that age deals with such as trying to fit in at school but being mocked, bullied, and humiliated. There’s the inevitable exploration of independence, but also that mix of grief, fear, and strained relationships with siblings and parents. All of it that mix we go through at that confusing pivotal time of life. 

There is a clever use of technology in Tröll. There were projection screens on the floor and behind the main staging action. At times, shadow projections were used, and the eponymous troll was a masterly and somewhat scary-looking puppet. All of this added dynamic and engaging moments. 

It seemed on opening night that a troll had somehow gotten into the wires as there were some minor failures of the technology. That kind of thing can be a nightmare, but McCubbin Howell didn’t let that upset the night. He carried on regardless, and in some ways, this unseen ‘troll’ kind of added further symbolism to the story. 

What is remarkable about this production is that Ralph McCubbin Howell is clearly a hell of a lot older than Otto, but he brings a wonderful youthful energy and innocence to the role that is totally believable and beguiling. 

Tröll is a simple story, lovingly told, and is a reminder that none of us ever truly grow up completely, and that’s a good thing. Otto is a young boy trying to find himself and overcome the doubts and fears he has inside himself. Who, at any age, couldn’t relate to that?  

TRÖLL

10 – 13 August 2022 at Q Theater Auckland

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